CREATING INTERACTIVE DESIGN WITH HAND-DRAWN ILLUSTRATION
Our regular Created Local series has for the last 8 years highlighted well over 100 different creative people living in and around Portsmouth. We recently caught up illustrator and designer John Evelyn, who has a heavyweight portfolio with design work for clients such as Evian, Chanel, Disney & More. As well as this commercial work John has been working on an interactive, immersive game/app entitled ‘A Skyrocket Story’ including both the illustrated world, soundtrack and the design interface.
What is your background? How did you get in to design & illustration? Inspiration(s)?
In terms of design, I started out working for a media agency in London when I finished uni. We specialised in film campaigns and video game campaigns. We had a small team of mixed discipline people, so everyone had a hand in code and design. This unique environment definitely drove me to refine my design approach as I was never afforded room to lose sight of the technical, functional side of things. I was surrounded by talented, experienced designers so I studied their approaches as closely as possible.
In terms of illustration, by 2007 I hadn’t created any traditional artwork since college – only digital. And that work tended towards a Cartoon Network vibe, I was a big fan of Genndy Tartakovsky. One day, I came across a game designer called Ferry Halim – he released games under the name Orisinal. His games had utterly charming visuals. They were akin to beautiful postcards.
That inspired me to make a game in my spare time called Hyberdoze where I pursued a more picture book approach to my previous work. Whilst it’s certainly aged, it was pivotal – it felt like a more honest reflection of my own inherent style. It was a little like finding out I’d subconsciously been impersonating someone else’s singing for years only to accidentally find my own voice! That led to a return to pen and paperwork.
I’m also inspired by the work of Maurice Sendak, Rob Ryan, Hayao Miyazaki (his illustration work is fantastic – particularly the Nausicaa comics). Plenty of artists from other disciplines inspire my work too. I love the writing of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (I read Wind, Sand & Stars every year), the fascinating flying machines of Gustav Mesmer and the more sentimental work of Takeshi Kitano. I have to add Naohisa Inoue as well, his paintings are eerily close to dreams I have, so the discovery of his work not long ago really took me aback. If I could live in Iblard (his fictional world) that would be ideal!
All these people have such distinctive, honest creative voices, and that is something I aspire to.
Total Robostruction Game
Tsum Tsum Splash Game
You’re based in Portsmouth, are you born & bred or moved here? If so, what drew you here?
I was born in Portsmouth, grew up in Waterlooville just over the hill. I studied in London and have lived there on and off but I always find myself moving back South. When I was a teenager there was a huge local punk scene here, I played with my suitably awful band at places like the Horseshoe (used to be off Kings Rd roundabout) and The Airballoon which had incredible all-dayers. And whilst things have changed, there is a new kind of buzz, about Southsea in particular, that I love.
You work on a lot of digital projects, can you talk us through your process?
My most recent commercial project was a game for Disney called Tsum Tsum Splash. The outline of a multi-faceted campaign with Evian had been given the go-ahead early on. One aspect of that was to be a game, but when I got involved the only thing that existed of that was a thumbnail on a Powerpoint slide. For me that was fantastic as it meant that I only had a loose brief to work to.
The defining feature of this project was how the tech would dictate the visual design. The game absolutely had to hinge on some kind of water/fluid mechanic so that informed every other design decision that followed. This was all the more pivotal as the game had to run across desktop, iOS & Android.
First I researched the most effective means of implementing fluid simulation with minimal processor requirement. Once that aspect was working, I had a clearer idea of the technical constraints facing the game-play design. Alongside this I worked on mock-ups of what the final game might look like – safe in the knowledge that I had a good idea at that point of how the underpinning tech would work.
Once I’d established what kind of levels were possible, then it was a question of marrying that with an aesthetic that called to mind the other Tsum Tsum games on mobile. This was tricky as it had to look related to those games whilst not being so similar as to be misleading, but I’m happy with the results – and so too were the Japanese team behind the Tsum Tsum mobile games.
The final phase was to design levels that introduced one new game mechanic at a time and taught them to the user through play. This was crucial as, being a global project, the text had to be minimal – and besides, I always endeavour to avoid instructions screens. I much prefer games to be intuitive rather than prescriptive.
You’ve worked with Capcom, Disney, etc, working with these sorts of clients what level of creative freedom do you have?
That can vary dramatically based on what stage of a project I’m brought in on. I’ve been fortunate enough to work on a great number of projects from day 1. In those instances, whilst there is often a distinct commercial target by which success will be measured, nobody knows precisely how they want to get there – and that is the fun bit.
The bigger the company the more stakeholders in a project – for example, Disney is essentially an affiliation of lots of autonomous companies: parks, consumer, theatrical, interactive. Sometimes global projects may involve some engagement with all of these. So there are a lot more people that need to be satisfied. Whilst some constraints are non-negotiable, ultimately everybody wants to deliver the coolest product possible so it’s a question of coming up with something you genuinely believe in so that you have the capacity to convince other people of its merits.
Can you describe your illustration style/character development and where these characters come from?
In my own work, I produce all my illustrations immediately with a pen, no prior pencil lines or guides. I like how all the incidental details and the occasional happy accident lend the end result an extra sense of life. I tend to use 0.03mm pens, so my images are made up of tiny lines and marks.
I work almost exclusively in black & white for my own projects – though I have experimented recently with watercolour pencils too. I love how black & white prompts a closer reading of a picture – colour often affords the viewer the ability to skim read an image, green over there: grass, blue there: sky. My favourite examples of black & white illustration invite an audience to really explore an image and discover the finer details for themselves.
The characters in my stories and games tend to be defined primarily by what they think – this is partly why I draw people with such minimal detail, and they rarely even have a distinct gender.
I often come up with things in a slightly backwards order, the world first, then what someone might think and experience in that world, then last of all – who exactly that person is.
I’ve always liked games, books and films where the world is a distinct lead character in its own right. Almost on equal footing with the protagonist. That is something I aim for.
I often come up with things in a slightly backwards order, the world first, then what someone might think and experience in that world, then last of all – who exactly that person is
Some of your projects involve both moment and interactivity (apps, etc), what do these bring to your design/illustration process?
For my own games, such as A Skyrocket Story, it is really quite liberating. I always imagine the wind blowing through my drawings, the trees swaying and often there are things fluttering through the air. Bringing these to life in digital form means I can realise the movement locked away in the original illustrations.
What are you currently working on?
Currently, I’m early in development on my next game: ‘The Collage Atlas.’ Actually, this is the first time I’ve spoken about it anywhere! It’s a first-person perspective, exploratory puzzle game. It was very close to being a new picture book project but it’s taken on a life of its own. I hope to have something more to show toward the end of the summer, so I’m looking to take it to some interactive/game exhibitions then.
Since I was a kid I’ve always been drawn to the permanently skewed and windswept trees along the common
I really liked A Skyrocket Story, can you describe the project, how you worked, the different elements, design style, etc?
The process for A Skyrocket Story was driven by a desire to create a game that still bore all the hallmarks of a pen illustration – right down to the texture of the page. Furthermore, my goal was to design a game where all the objectives were immediately laid out for the player at the start of each level. This led me to design levels that were entirely visible on one screen, one image. The result was that the concept art and level design were one and the same process. I drew a simple layout for the first level that served as a kind of synopsis of the game-play.
From then on I hand-drew all artwork with 0.03mm Copic fineliners on 300gsm watercolour paper, scanned them in and animated them where necessary. It took a while to replicate on-screen the incidental shadows and shading that results from using such textured paper but I’m happy with the results.
It was created during a very difficult time in my life so I wanted to make something that might spur people on who themselves are struggling. Sometimes, a singular focus, setting your sights on that one thing way on the horizon can get you through – so all these factors led to the creation of the protagonist: The inventor turned explorer. So fascinated by a message in a bottle, that they take flight and venture into the unknown.
I was keen for there to be a meaningful thread of discovery throughout the game so I ended up including an optional floating bottle in each level. Inside each bottle is a page from a picture book I wrote a couple years ago “Asleep As The Breeze”.
Where do you see your work moving in the future?
I certainly have more games in me so I hope to explore my illustration in more of those. I also have a couple of ideas for picture books which I’d like to work on after “The Collage Atlas” is completed.
I’ve consulted on a few projects in recent months, as a games designer – some which are really unconventional, and I absolutely love doing that so I hope to do more of that too.
Ultimately, as someone who grew up watching anime through the 90s, I still dream of being involved in making an animated feature! Character development isn’t my strong point but to be the architect of a world for a story would be incredible.
Are there any local elements/things/places about Portsmouth that you find inspirational?
I can’t sail and my swimming isn’t great but I could sit and stare at the sea forever, so I can never go too long without spending some time just taking that in. I’ve always been fascinated by the forts, they’re pretty magical – like something straight out of a Ghibli film.
Since I was a kid I’ve always been drawn to the permanently skewed and windswept trees along the common. I still love the unique shapes of them now. And strange as this might sound, that is the reason why much of my work makes reference to the breeze. To me anytime something is lifted into the air in my illustrations, it’s the breeze coming off the ocean waves.